“Radical Rochdale Flannel” – when a gift is used for another purpose…

Sunday marks the 196th anniversary of the “Peterloo Massacre”, where, on 16th Aug 1819, radical reformers and protesters flooded into St. Peter’s Fields in Manchester in their thousands to hear anti-poverty speakers, Reformers and to show their discontent of the Corn Laws and their campaign for voting rights (known as universal suffrage). One of the speakers at St. Peter’s Fields was Henry Hunt, a political speaker who wanted the Corn Laws repealed and for parliamentary reform. He was so good at speaking, and rabble rousing, that he became known as “The Orator”. He was arrested after the Peterloo Massacre and put into Ilchester Gaol. While imprisoned, Hunt wrote many letters to supporters who had formed unions of Radical Reformers urging them to continue their work in recruiting other working class men and women into the cause. The language he uses in the letters is quite persuasive; like the lavish rhetoric of one of his political speech. One letter he wrote was aimed at a new set of members – weavers from Rochdale. These men had woven Hunt some flannel, a soft fabric which was one of Rochdale’s main textiles. However, as you can see from an excerpt from the letter below, part of the gift was used for something quite bodily. . .

‘I am very happy to hear of the progress which the Great Northern Union is making… I am happy to see that the Rochdale lads have made a beginning, and sent their subscription to Sir Charles Wolseley. I cannot refrain from repeating my warmest thanks to the worthy fellows who sent me the beautiful piece of flannel, … Yesterday, Christmas-day we had the Gaol once more innundated with the flood. This is the FOURTH time that the whole Gaol had been under water within the last six weeks. Sir Charles Wolseley caught a violent cold and inflammation upon the chest…He was very ill, but a piece of Radical Rochdale Flannel, placed double, and applied to his chest, very soon have ease, and removed his cough and the pain he had previously felt,…I am sure that my Rochdale friends will agree with me, that I could not have applied their Flannel to a more useful, or more honourable purpose than that of giving ease and restoring the health of our worthy and excellent Treasurer of the Great Northern Radical Union. I shall not part with any more of this Flannel to any one. I have about ten yards remaining, that shall be reserved to grace our National Museum and it shall be placed side by side with the beautiful Quilt and Counterpane, from Bolton. ‘ From a letter to The Radical Reformers Male and Female of England, Scotland and Ireland from Henry Hunt. Sent from “Ilchester Bastille 8th day, 4th month 3d year of the MANCHESTER MASSACRE, without retribution or inquiry. December 24th, 1821” printed by T. Dolby, London (pp 20-21).

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